Meet Ramrao Nehare – Nature Interpreter And Wildlife Guide From Tadoba
Photo: Mayank Mishra.
Many people shortsightedly take them for granted. All too often they are disrespected by boorish tourists. But some wildlife guides stand tall, rising above the limitations of the guests they are paid to guide. Thirty-eight-year-old Ramrao Nehare, a local Tadoba villager, is one such naturalist. He revels in informing, entertaining and conscripting visitors into the wonderful world of nature. Bittu Sahgal met him in Maharashtra’s Umred-Karhandla Sanctuary and came away impressed by his knowledge, quiet poise and his understated pride in his chosen profession. He represents a key hope and conservation strategy… to turn India’s wildlife tourism into a powerful conservation instrument.
Are you happy to be living in Waghdoh’s home (Tadoba’s dominant male tiger, one of the largest in India)?
He is not a tiger. He is a god for us. In the past few years thousands of visitors have seen the Telia tigress and her four cubs, but few know that Waghdoh actually used to live with them and hunt for the female when the cubs they produced together were very young. I have even seen Waghdoh walking calmly with the cubs without ever harming them. I have helped many photographers to document this.
When did you turn nature into a livelihood?
Technically less than ten years ago when I registered at the Tadoba National Park. But my relationship with nature began when I was born right here in Navegaon (Ramdegi), a village where tigers always roamed freely. As children, the sound of birds, the presence of wild animals was natural. These are our gods. We are respectful, not afraid. And even when they eat our crops, we treat it as an offering.
What was it like in those early days when Tadoba park was not as well known?
The incomes were lower, because visitors were fewer. My family wondered how I would survive. But I liked being in the forest and needed nothing… just food, shelter and a chance to live life without worrying about the rest of the world.
Did you have to get professional training?
In those early days I learned a lot from forest guards, from more experienced guides and even from visitors. I used to wait for experienced wildlife visitors also because they would teach me about birds, trees and wildlife. Sometimes (smiles) I felt I should be paying them, not the other way around. We guards teach each other also, but the department also organises workshops and so do some good wildlife organisations.
Was wildlife better off in those early days?
No. There was less protection. City people would come to hunt outside the park and some villagers would help them because wild pigs ate their crops and tigers and leopards killed sheep and cows. Visitor facilities were not very good then. I have sometimes guided visitors on a motorcycle. Even walking. Today the park is getting better in every way. More tigers, more visitors.
Is it getting too successful?
Maybe. Sometimes the crowds are too large and not everyone comes here for shanti (peace and quiet).
How has Project Tiger’s new tourism guidelines affected you all?
Us? It has not affected us. In fact the wildlife department has registered more guides than ever before. But the route restriction rule is not wise. All vehicles are forced to visit the same few places in just 20 per cent of the park and this literally creates traffic jams, particularly when a tiger is seen. This disturbs wildlife even more. But I am only a wildlife guide. Range Officers have a very difficult job and they really know best.
Photo: Mayank Mishra.
Some people feel that wildlife tourism is disturbing wildlife.
Yes people make extra noise, both when they see a tiger and also sometimes when they are bored because they saw ‘nothing’. We do try to get them to appreciate trees, birds, butterflies, even sounds. But very few have patience. Many feel cheated and blame us when they do not see a tiger. When I explain that the tiger is watching us… they act as though it is something we say to cover up our lack of ‘skill’ since we could not track the tiger.
How can this change?
Guides cannot change this. Those who promise visitors pucca sightings of tigers are at fault. People sometimes think that tigers will be waiting on the road to greet them when they enter the gate! They even get angry sometimes and offer us money to take the vehicle into the non-tourist zones where they believe all the tigers are hiding. We patiently explain the rules. But sometimes even I wonder why some rules are made. Some part of the forest must always be closed for tourism because of management needs. But if we scatter vehicles, the disturbance will be much less.
Does the park management consult you guides about wildlife tourism?
I would not say consult, but they organise meetings where our opinions are expressed freely. Recently the camera fees were reduced in Tadoba from Rs. 500 for long lenses to Rs. 200 because we informed them how unhappy visitors were. We are actually the eyes and ears of the department. When we see something wrong, we inform guards and rangers. We are not only guides, but also protectors of the park. Beat Officers and Forest Guards cannot visit every corner of the forest, but tourist vehicles do just that.
Are you respected enough? By the park authorities? By visitors?
Everyone is different. Some give us a lot of respect. Some do not respect us. Actually we must earn respect. We are park ambassadors. Our job is not merely to identify birds and animals and explain routes to the driver. Some of us take great pleasure is introducing visitors to our own Gond culture, to the history of the park. People think we have an easy job. But my day starts at 4 a.m. We then go to the park gate and check for our turn. Sometimes we return without any income. A few tourists, even before we enter the gate say: “Tu apna muh bandh rakh, aur tiger dikha.” (Shut your mouth and just show us a tiger!). Nowadays we have started getting mostly very decent tourists who are genuinely interested in the park and its environment.
At this point, Roheet Karoo and Ramrao organised an interaction with over 30 guides just outside the Umred Karhandla Sanctuary gate. Here is what they had to say.
Will Umred Karhandla ever be as good as Tadoba?
Of course it will. There was a time when even seeing a deer was a matter of chance, but just see what two years of fire control, anti-poaching patrols and the creation of water sources has done. Rampant hunting has declined, illegal grazing and fuelwood collection have been reduced and tigers can be seen on the road.
You are sure about this? You are willing to devote your lives to this idea?
Yes. This was a reserved forest and we used to exploit it for our needs. Even we knew one day it would be exhausted. When it was declared a wildlife sanctuary we were upset with the new restrictions. But part of the forest has been left out so we are able to meet our needs from there. But now over 100 families are earning more than we could dream about two years ago.
But will the visitors keep coming?
Look at all of us. All of us are locals. We will work with the wildlife staff to make this not only better than Tadoba but better than Ranthambhore. Just come back in five years and see. And all the citizens of Nagpur are on our side.
What about your village elders and families?
They were a little worried and upset at first but they can see that we are not only getting better income than we can from farming, or daily wages, or working on construction sites, or even by selling forest fruit, leaves and wood in the market. We are also getting izzat (respect). If tourism income is shared with local villages, really shared, we will show you a miracle in Umred Karhandla. This is not a ‘jungle’, this is our home.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014.